1, 1894 a fire raged through the town of Hinckley, Minnesota. A combination
of intense drought, high winds, and dry kindling left behind by sloppy
loggers resulted in an enormous firestorm that literally engulfed the
town. The cyclone shot flames miles into the air and temperatures reached
1000 degrees (F). Survival was haphazard: over 100 people safely rode
out the storm in a soggy gravel pit in the middle of town, while 127
people died seeking refuge in a swamp. In four hours the fire burned
out 400 square miles and killed more than 400 people.
landmark Tobie's Restaurant has
an excellent description of the mesmerizing power of the fire on its
fierce flaming heat became so intense in certain localities, it created
what seemed to be a vacuum. The vacuum would then quickly fill with
violent and explosive gases; yet at times appear entirely at rest in
spite of the brisk south wind. With a river so near, there would have
been time to seek safety in flight and even to have removed goods if
no greater danger menaced the townspeople than an ordinary forest fire.
But when the fire burst over the town it came in fierce explosions and
in streaks, with suffocating choking gases that paralyzed the victims
even before the burning.
one instance a man was stricken down, but not burned enough to destroy
his clothes, yet in one of his pockets was found a small leather purse
in which were four silver dollars welded together in one solid piece.
In another case two horses were badly burned, but the wagonload of hay
they were pulling was unharmed. It was no ordinary fire. It came too
quickly for analysis. It baffled science. It could not be accounted
for. It was a phenomenon that defies all description. It did not crawl
or creep but burst and exploded. It roared, seethed and boiled. On the
ground it swept forward in walls and cylinders of flame; in the air
it soared in massive balls of fire and gas. Its heat was intense and
searing and it devoured kingly pines in minutes, yet spared fragile
saplings close by."
other communities, such as Mission Creek and Brook Park, were also destroyed
by the fire, Hinckley suffered the greatest number of fatalities and
feature the most interesting tales of heroism and rescue, especially
regarding the trains that ferried townspeople to safety amid the flames.
One of the trains in particular - that of Jim Root - was involved in
a dramatic race against the flames with over a hundred townspeople aboard.
Although the train and the tracks were ablaze, Root managed to maneuver
the train to a shallow lake, where the majority of those aboard were
able to find refuge from the firestorm.
the trainbound drama, it seems entirely suitable that the Hinckley Fire
Museum is housed in the train depot which was rebuilt in 1894 after
the fire destroyed the original. So,
on a stormy summer day, I set out to visit Hinckley, which lies about
80 miles north of Minneapolis. And this is what I learned about that
tragic September day all those years ago...
the parking area of the museum is this beautiful mural. A nearby
sign explains it as follows:
STORY OF HEROISM AND FRIENDSHIP
mural, painted by artist and Mille Lacs Band member Steven Premo
depicts the story of an unselfish and brave Ojibwe woman who
saved the Non-Indian Patrick family from the Great Hinckley
(Blackfeather) heard the cries of Mary Ellen Patrick and her
two children, Frank and Roy, who had sought refuge from the
Fire on a boat on Grindstone Lake. When the boat was blown across
the lake, frightening the Patrick family, Mah-kah-day-gwon and
her two small children, Be Shew (Jessie) and Saung way way gah
bow eke (Maggie) paddled out in their canoe to meet them and
bring them back to the shoreline for safety.
Ojibwe woman offered them food and shelter in her unburned cabin
for the night and even made a pair of moccassins for Roy who
had lost his shoes while escaping the Fire.
spent her life helping people after relocating with her husband
Alexander McDonnell to the White Earth Indian Reservation in
1905 where she acted as doctor and mid-wife in the area, delivering
over 300 babies. She was affectionately known as Granma McDonnell
to children and adults as well.
Patrick family returned to Hinckley after the Fire helping the
town rebuild. They remain a prominent family in the town to
this day. Frank, who was two years old at the time of the Fire
was a wonderful storyteller and relayed his rescue story to
many museum visitors and school children before his death in
the end, it is a heart warming story of heroism and friendship
that has survived over one hundred years.
why is it that I don't find the story nearly so heartwarming...
considering that the Native American woman gave so much to so
many people... yet she was still stuck living on a reservation?
the museum they have a large collection of photographs taken
both before and after the fire. These images show the lumber
community of Hinckley prior to the fire. (It was a very dark
day and there was no flash photography allowed in the museum,
so these pictures are blurry. High quality versions of the images
are available on various websites - see links below - or in
the excellent book "From
the Ashes: The Story of the Hinckley Fire of 1894".)
a good view of the interior of the museum. The far wall is dominated
by a very cool mural of the fire.
photographs showcase James Root and his rescue train which caught
on fire trying to flee the inferno and barely made it to Skunk
Lake where over 100 refugees took cover from the searing flames
in the muck.
favorite displays in the museum were, of course, the mementos
of the fire themselves. Unsurprisingly, with such an intense
inferno, there were few objects that survived, but the ones
that did were very interesting. The description of the satchel
states, "Severt Haglin was the St. Paul & Duluth
section foreman at Groningen in 1894. On duty the day of the
Fire, the gathering darkness forced him to light the switch
lamps. Hurrying home, he collected the family papers and a few
clothes into this satchel. The family then fled to a cut in
the high bank where they saved themselves."
melted piece of metal beside the satchel has the following description:
"Several train cars burned up on the tracks where they
stood. This hinge was among the few remains of one of those
is another interesting relic from the fire: "Although James
Root's train was destroyed this tinderbox was salvaged and is
the last known part of the train in existence today. Engine #69
was put to use and remained for many years on the Iron Range until
the 1960's when it was destroyed." Jeez - all those years
of service and that's the thanks it gets??? Typical...
change purses that survived the fire.
this mural (by Cliff Letty) depecting various scenes from the
fire absolutely wonderful? I wouldn't mind having this on a
wall in The Castle DeSpair.
are probably the most famous mementos on display, though they
aren't that mesmerizing for us morbid types:
IN A POTATO PATCH
Creek, a small saw mill town was one of the first villages south
of Hinckley to be razed by the Fire. All its residents survived
that day by taking shelter in an open potato field.
of them was young Jenny Johnson, who was placed in the adjacent
rocker by her parents. Well protected by wet blankets, she gripped
her china doll seen here and sat out the Firestorm in the open
for us morbid types, this next one is a much more interesting
memento since it was plucked off a casualty of the fire, not
snuff box belonged to fire victim Henry Hanson and was all that
was left of his that was identifiable. Henry was one of the
volunteer firemen who died in the fire. He left behind his wife
Emma and six young children.
returned to Hinckley where a relief home was built for her and
her children. She took in boarders to make a living, something
she had no experience in prior to losing her husband. Emma's
story is typical of many who lost their spouses and exemplifies
the courage and fortitude of those who came back to this blackened
land to start all over again.
morbid debris from the fire!
purse on the left of the top picture (and in the middle picture)
has the following description: "Mrs. John McNamara and
family escaped on Root's train to Skunk Lake. Getting off the
flaming train, she and her two oldest songs ran down the tracks
in fright and perished. Beneath her charred body this purse
was later found. In it was $3,500 which she had saved to send
her sons to college."
doll in the middle of the top picture (and in the bottom picture)
has the following description: "This little china doll
belonged to eight year old Mary Tew. Clinging to her doll throughout
the tragic ordeal, Mary escaped, only to die a year later from
the effects of the Fire as many people did."
pitcher on the right has the following description: "This
cream pitcher survived the Fire by being buried along with other
family treasures. Those who lived northeast of Partridge had
time to save more belongings by doing so."
are a couple of macabre mementos associated with telegraph operator
Tommy Dunn, who died when he stayed at his post too long attempting
to make contact with the railroad to determine when a rescue
train would be arriving:
the fire, the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad wanted to recognize
telegraph operator Tommy Dunn for his heroism during the fire
even though he was one of the fire victims. They took his silver
railroad watch, had it gold plated and inscribed it:
Dunn, Operator, St. Paul & Duluth Railroad, met his death
while on duty at Hinckley, Minn, during the Great Fire, September
the body of Tommy Dunn was found, the family kept the ring he
was wearing when he perished, even though the stone that was
once in the ring had completely burned.
the ring on the doily beside the clock. What a silly thing to
say though, huh? "They kept the ring despite the fact that
the stone was burned" - as if they kept the ring for the
value of the ring, and not for the fact that it was on his hand
as he burned to death. Ah well, I suppose you have to think
of SOMETHING to put on these placards, eh?
also have a very well-done recreation of the telegraph office
with a likeness of Dunn faithfully remaining at his post despite
the approaching flames. The last message he sent was the prophetic,
"I have stayed too long". Indeed.
is a film that you can watch in the old freight room, as well
as a recreation of Dr. E.L. Stephan's office. "Doc"
Stephan was a prominent citizen and doctor in the town of Hinckley
who played an important role in the rebuilding of the town.
the second floor of the museum is a 1890's era recreation of
the apartment where the depot agent and his family lived.
purchasing a book (From the Ashes) from the gift shop, I walked
outside and took this shot of the Hinckley water tower. You
can see it was quite a dismal day. Of course, I was most pleased.
the museum, I drove to the nearby gravel pit, where so many
Hinckley residents successfully took refuge from the inferno.
Although the pit has been filled in over the years, the remnants
have been made into a lovely little park filled with statues
depicting a couple of the residents. A placard in the area says
the Great Hinckley Fire on September 1, 1894, this site, then
known as the Gravel Pit, proved to be a God-send to those people
who were not able to escape the Fire by train. It was on this
railroad track that two trains, one passenger and one freight,
coupled together to take over 400 people from the burning town
and deliver them safely to Duluth. This pit, considered an eyesore
to the people of Hinckley in 1894 was dug by the Eastern Minnesota
Railroad to be used in making the roadbed for the train track.
But, it was where about 100 people, along with many domestic
and wild animals, found shelter from the Fire. The pit at that
time was a three acre excavation, about thirty feet deep, with
a spring that kept water in the depression. Because 1894 was
a very dry year, there was only about three feet of water in
the depression. Everyone who took shelter from the Fire here,
however, was saved, except for one man who was overcome from
heat and smoke. He fainted and was stepped on by a cow and died.
The frightened people stayed in the water for about three hours
and when they crawled out to see what was left of the town they
were horrified to see the total devastation. Where once stood
a busy and prosperous town was now just a pile of smoking ashes.
The only buildings remaining were the Round House and the Water
Tank on the south end of town where the railroad tracks intersect.
Here the fire victims found shelter where they stayed until
they could be rescued by train. Over the years, the pit has
been filled in. At one time it was common to see boaters in
the pit and also a foot bridge was built to connect one side
of the pit to the other.
final stop was the cemetery, where a large monument was erected
in memory of the victims of the fire, over 200 of whom are buried
in a collective grave. It was difficult to get in and out of
the cemetery since there is an Indian Casino just down the street,
and it obviously is the big draw for the non-morbid public.
(You might notice the line of cars in the background of the
pictures. I wasn't very pleased that my moment of solitude with
the Hinckley dead was sullied by the presence of so many gamblers.)
monument, which was dedicated in 1900, is near the street and
easily identified. Upon the monument are several inscriptions,
the most poignant of which are the following two:
1st, A.D. 1894
On the first day of September, A.D. 1894, between the hours
of three and five o'clock in the afternoon a forest fire swept
over Central Pine County devastating four hundred square miles
of country, consuming the villages of Hinckley, Sandstone, Mission
Creek and Brook Park, and destroying more than four hundred
and eighteen human lives.
the four trenches north of this monument lie the remains of
two hundred and forty eight men, women and children, residents
of Hinckley, who perished in the fire which this monument was
erected to commemorate.
with this last somber moment, my trip to Hinckley had come to
an end. In a much more agreeable manner than it came to an end
for 418 unfortunate souls on September 1, 1894.